This City Won't Wash Away
"This city won't ever drown"
When Steve Earle wrote the hauntingly beautiful melody "This City" for the HBO series Treme I can say with some certainty that he was not eluding to the strength of the physical facades of the French, Spanish, and Greek Revival buildings that line the French Quarter, the mid rise buildings of the CBD, or the mansions on the St Charles street car line. Through floods and fires, wars and riots, slavery and segregation, the one thing that keeps the city of New Orleans afloat is its people. The people of New Orleans carry this spirit of resilience with them that is second to none. And out of that resilience has grown this wonderful mix of pride, genuine hospitality, and grit that becomes a part of so many of NOLA's residents.
New Orleans is different from any city in the United States. There’s a blend of people and cultures that gives the city a uniqueness that you won’t find anywhere else in this country. The city, once inhabited by Choctaw, Houmas, and other Indigenous people fell under both French and Spanish rule before becoming a part of the United States in 1803. The descendants of those original settlers became known as Creoles. In the 1820s it became a major entry point for immigrants from Germany and Italy, second only to New York. Cajuns were French settlers that had once lived in Nova Scotia and were exiled by the British, making their way down to the French ruled Louisiana. With New Orleans being a major port for the Slave Trade, both African and Caribbean influences arose. There are significant populations of people from Italy, Greece, Croatia, Philippines, and Sicily. Because the city was essentially an island surrounded by the Mississippi river on one side and lakes Maurepas, Pontchartrain, and Borgne on the other it remained fairly isolated from upper Louisianna and the rest of the United States for nearly 250 years.
The history that makes up New Orleans brought about some things that are distinctly unique to NOLA. For example The French Quarter is still referred to at times at The Viuex Carre (pronounced VOO ka RAY), or the Old CIty from it's French history. Street names like Burgundy, Chartres, Calliope, and Tchoupitoulas are definitely not pronounced like they look (it's bur-GUN-dee, CHAR-ters, CAL-ee-ope, and CHOP-uh-TOO-lis). The French Quarter is only a small part of New Orleans as a whole, with 73 "official" neighborhoods with names like Marigny (MARE-uh-nee) and St Roch (Rock), and Treme (Tre-MAY). Street names change from the names of French Royals and patron saints to the names of Spaniards upriver from Canal St.. Native New Orleanians don't have a Southern accent, and they don't have a Cajun accent either. Their accent is more along the lines of what you might hear in New York than what you'd hear in Georgia. Black men in elaborately feathered outfits still parade during carnival season as Mardi Gras Indians, paying homage to the Indigenous people who provided assistance to slaves who escaped their owners.
The uniqueness bred out of all these different cultures brings about a sense of pride for people who are born and raised in NOLA. Like the cab driver on our first visit to the city said “Why would I live anywhere else? This is the best city in the world”. This was a sentiment we would hear time and time again on each visit from the people who live there, and it's a sentiment we definitely agree with. To us, New Orleans is the best city in the world.
Now, we all know about Southern Hospitality, but it seems that in New Orleans the hospitality is more than just a Southern thing, it’s a NOLA thing. People smile and say good morning when you walk down the street. They invite you into their homes or offer up a spot on their stoop to rest. They’ll pin $1 bills on your shirt for your birthday. While visiting for Mardi Gras we were offered spots to stand for every parade we attended (which is a big deal because people hold those spots for days!), drinks to share, and given a chance to catch as many Zulu Coconuts and Muses’s shoes as we could (we caught 3 coconuts and one amazing shoe). You can dance down the street, or under The Underpass, with people you’ve never met following behind a second line band and having the best time of your life. And when you’re thirsty someone will undoubtedly be there to sell you a beer from their cooler or mix you a drink off the roof of their truck.
We have traveled to New Orleans 7 times in 4 years and plan to head back for visit number 8 in the next few months. Each time we meet the most amazing people, and some have become long standing friends. On our first visit in January 2014 we wondered into The Spotted Cat on Frenchman St on a Friday night after being enticed by the sounds of The Shotgun Jazz Band. We immediately fell in love with their music and bought every CD they had for sale that night after dancing until our feet couldn’t keep us standing. Eight months later when we returned to NOLA in August I asked Marla Dixon, the lead vocalist and trumpet player for Shotgun to sing for Lindsay and I when I asked her to marry me at Café Du Monde. Marla brought along Twerk Thompson, upright base player for the band, to play the banjo while she sang Can’t Help Falling In Love. The moment involved tears of joy, true love, claps from people enjoying their beignets in the café, and a really angry busker who was not happy that we interrupted his trumpet playing! Marla, Twerk, and Marla’s husband, John, quickly became friends who we return to see each and every time we head back to New Orleans.
After Lindsay said yes to marrying me, and after a few pictures on the bank of the Mississippi by a photographer I had hired to capture the moment, we went directly to The Golden Lantern to visit Jon Penton-Robicheaux. We met Jon the day before because I had read somewhere that the Lantern had the best Bloody Mary’s in the French Quarter (they are that good). While sitting at the bar, Lindsay decided to strike up a conversation with Jon (because that’s what Lindsay does) and asked him to tell us something about himself that we didn’t know (which could have been anything considering we had just met). He walked away and returned with a business card with “Robicheaux v. Caldwell” on it. He explained that he and his husband, Derek, were suing for the right to have their marriage legally recognized in Louisiana. It was only fitting that we return the next day after getting engaged to celebrate with Jon. Sadly, Jon passed away on May 12, 2017 but he will forever be an important person in the story of the day that Lindsay and I got engaged.
And that’s how it is in New Orleans. People that you meet in what may seem like a fleeting moment in time become people that stay in your life for years. While out celebrating our engagement that night we met two travelers from the North like ourselves. Jessica and her friend were visiting NOLA on a road trip from New Jersey. We danced and sang in Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop while passers-by congratulated us on our engagement, occasionally buying us drinks to celebrate. Jessica has remained a friend, and Lindsay loves to get updates on her dog, Phil.
We ended that night in The Spotted Cat, which is where we end most nights when we are in New Orleans. It’s also where we met another great friend, Kevin Louis. Two nights after being drawn into the Cat by The Shotgun Jazz Band on our first visit we were drawn in again by another band that Kevin happened to be playing with. Kevin has absolutely zero pretense, both on the stage or in person. What you see is what you get. And what you get is a New Orleans native that can play the trumpet with one hand while holding a glass of whiskey in the other, take a drag from a cigarette (back when you could still smoke in the NOLA bars), and blow on the trumpet like it was nobody’s business. What you don’t see, however, is a man who’s studied trumpet at the Aaron Copland School of Music and the Oberlin Conservatory and now teaches music to New Orleans youth. If you want to see Kevin shine, let him play next to one of his kids. Lindsay was lucky enough to snap a quick photo of one of those moments and it has remained a favorite photo of ours over the years
Often it’s those quick moments when we travel that stay in our minds the most. Like the time we met Loretta, the owner of Loretta’s Authentic Pralines, while we were on a culinary bike tour with Confederacy of Cruisers and she gave us her not yet released crawfish beignet’s (which may have been the best thing I’ve ever had). Or when our owner occupied AirBnB hosts (we are always responsible about where we spend our money in NOLA) Erika and her wife threw us a backyard crawfish boil. Or the time we met Cubs the Poet and he wrote us a poem that fit Lindsay and I perfectly. Or the time I ran into a Connecticut friend’s cousin, Frank, who works at Preservation Hall and I recognized only from Facebook and have since run into every visit including the time he marched with the 610 Stompers in the Zulu Parade. Or the time we took a kayak tour in the Honey Island swamp and our tour guide, Sammy, told us all about how he stayed in his house during hurricane Katrina and thought he was going to die. And how the following 7 days of confusion and lawlessness were the scariest of his life. In New Orleans we’ve had endless moments like these with bar tenders and bar patrons, chefs and wait staff, tourists and locals, musicians and the people sitting in the endless array of music clubs in NOLA. Something about the city brings about this commonality, a connection. I’m not sure I can put it into words, but if you’ve ever been to New Orleans, then you know exactly what I mean.
Here’s to finding more of that commonality. Until next time, Adventures!